Sky This Month March 2022

Tuesday, March 1st 2022 09:18 AM

Venus continues to dominate in the morning, along with a retinue of fellow planets gracing the predawn sky. Mars, Saturn, and elusive Mercury provide lots to observe. Jupiter largely is hidden from view after its conjunction with the Sun. Meanwhile, the evening sky carries William Herschel’s great discovery of 1781, the planet Uranus, easily visible in binoculars. Let’s start with a closer look at this distant giant. The only planet visible in the evening sky is 6th-magnitude Uranus, nestled within a dim region of Aries the Ram. It stands due north of the circle of stars depicting the head of Cetus the Whale. The easiest way to find the field of view containing Uranus as you scan around with binoculars is to draw a line between Hamal, the brightest star in Aries, and Menkar, the brightest star in Cetus. Uranus lies midway between these two easy-to-spot 2nd-magnitude stars.   Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Saturn share the sky in July 2010. This month, the same planets a...

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Snapshot: A study in stellar objects

Wednesday, February 16th 2022 09:23 AM

  Visible light — the rainbow of colors that human eyes can detect — is only one kind of light. The electromagnetic spectrum ranges from short, highly energetic gamma rays to long, low-energy radio waves. In order to get a full picture of a cosmic object, researchers need telescopes that can investigate it across this spectrum. R Quarii   In this system, a stellar remnant called a white dwarf is slowly devouring its companion, pulling material from the larger red giant star as they orbit one another. Once enough material accumulates onto the white dwarf, it triggers an explosion. Known as a nova, these outbursts are less powerful than a supernova and don’t destroy their progenitor, so a white dwarf can experience multiple novae over its lifetime. Using X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory (purple) and optical light taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers can see material from past novae around the white dwarf (red and blue). A jet of...

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Meet 20 great astronomers who made the history books

Tuesday, February 15th 2022 09:45 AM

  I love lists. I’ve created them for the 25 greatest astrophotos, 25 essential telescope accessories, 12 great lunar targets, 10 things to do on a cloudy night, and lots more. For our 500th issue, I even wrote “The 500 Coolest Things About Space,” which took up the whole issue. Most were just lists, but for this one, I’m doing something different. I’m ranking my top 20 astronomers. Here’s a necessary caveat: Throughout recorded history, astronomy — like science in general — has not been a terribly diverse or inclusive field. For instance, the first Black woman in the U.S. to get a Ph.D. in astronomy was Barbara A. Williams, in 1981. This list spans nearly 2,300 years of observers of the cosmos. In another 2,300 years, you can expect the next version of this list to look very different. That said, I love ranked lists because they get me thinking. I hope this list does the same for you. 20. Charles Messier   June 26, 1730 &...

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The Sky This Week: Bask in the Full Snow Moon

Friday, February 11th 2022 09:28 AM

  The just-past-Full Moon sets over snowy Yellowstone National Park in February 2017.   Friday, February 11 Jupiter and Neptune hang in the western sky this evening after the Sun has set. If you’re going to observe them, opt for Jupiter first. The solar system’s largest world will set roughly an hour after the Sun, affording less time to view it, particularly before it sinks too low into the thicker, more turbulent air near the horizon. Jupiter glows at magnitude –2, making it easy to find as the sky grows dark. It sits smack dab in the middle of Aquarius, just over 2° below magnitude 3.7 Hydor (Lambda [λ] Aquarii). Tonight, the planet’s disk spans 33" and is accompanied by all four of its Galilean moons, but these may be difficult to pick out with a bright background and potentially poor seeing. Once the sky grows a bit darker and good prospects for Jupiter are gone, look 12° northeast of the giant planet to find 8th-magnitude Nep...

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  The QHY 410C is a powerful full-frame CMOS camera that is best suited for long-focal-length telescopes. For 20 years, I have been using charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras, and I currently own the top-of-the-line SBIG STX-16803. But while studying two images I recently made using the latest QHY 410C CMOS camera, I had to wonder: Is CCD dead? For years, I lectured about the asymptotic boundary of noise in CCD images. In a basic sense, this means that no matter how many frames you take to increase your signal-to-noise ratio for a cleaner image, you will always run into a wall of noise when you stretch your image to bring out deep shadows. But with QHY’s new CMOS camera, this troublesome wall of noise is nonexistent. The QHY 410C is a one-shot color camera that utilizes the back-illuminated Sony IMX410 CMOS chip found in high-end cameras like the Nikon Z6 and the Sony A7 III. But the 410C has taken the full-frame (35 millimeter) 24-megapixel chip and mounted it in a camer...

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The Sky This Week: Mars meets M22

Friday, February 4th 2022 09:46 AM

  Sagittarius Teapot asterism and galactic center: Several stars in the constellation Sagittarius make up the Teapot asterism (lower left). This region of the sky features heavily on your predawn observing checklist this week. Friday, February 4 Saturn is in conjunction with the Sun at 2 P.M. EST, rendering it invisible for now. It will reappear in the morning sky near Mercury by the end of the month Comet 19P/Borrelly is classified as a Jupiter-family comet whose 6.9-year orbit takes it from inside the orbit of Mars to beyond the orbit of Jupiter. The comet is currently magnitude 9 and beginning to fade as it heads out and away from the Sun after reaching perihelion a few days ago. Tonight this comet shares the constellation Pisces with a thin crescent Moon. To find Borrelly, locate 4th-magnitude Alrescha in far eastern Pisces. Once you’re there, skim a little less than 8° northeast to land on Borrelly. Larger apertures and darker skies will really help you here: A...

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A beginner's guide to star parties

Thursday, February 3rd 2022 09:26 AM

  Star parties are one- or multiple-night events that bring excited amateurs together under dark skies to share their love of stargazing. Astronomy is a fascinating and rewarding hobby. It allows us to see beautiful sights, such as misty whirlpool galaxies and glittering star clusters, and witness incredible events, such as meteor showers and eclipses. It gives us a unique sense of perspective, too. But unless you live in a community with an astronomical society that organizes regular observing nights, chances are you’ll spend a lot of time alone, looking at the night sky with just your neighbor’s cat or an insomniac cow for company. Of course, that’s part of the appeal for some people. They enjoy gazing at the night sky by themselves, enjoying precious time on their own far from the noise and hubbub of their busy everyday life. I know I relish my special nights stargazing alone inside the ruins of the 800-year-old castle that overlooks my town here in norther...

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What’s up: February 2022 Skywatching Tips

Wednesday, February 2nd 2022 09:20 AM

  What's Up for February? Jupiter makes its exit, Venus at peak brightness, and the star-forming cloud next door. With the departure of Saturn and Venus over the past two months, Jupiter is the only bright planet left in our twilight skies in February, and it's on its way out! The giant planet stands alone, low in the western sky after sunset in February. By mid-month, it's setting only about an hour after the Sun. Once Jupiter departs at the end of February, the post-sunset sky will be essentially devoid of naked-eye planets until August, when Saturn will start rising in the east around sunset. (There's a short period, though, in April and May when you might be able to spot Mercury as it pops briefly above the horizon.)   Jupiter is the lone naked-eye planet after sunset in February. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech You'd have to go back four years, to March of 2018, to find twilight skies with no bright planets. So catch Jupiter before it's gone. And look for it to become a mo...

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  NASA's James Webb Space Telescope gives scientists new tools to search for the building blocks of life on distant planets NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is getting ready to give us the best view yet of worlds beyond our own solar system, commonly known as exoplanets. Scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley will be among the first to observe the cosmos with Webb, and they’re looking for clues about how exoplanets form, what they're made of, and whether any could be potentially habitable. On Jan. 24, 2022, the telescope reached its destination, an orbit about one million miles from Earth around a location called Sun-Earth Lagrange point 2, also known as L2. Now, Webb is one step closer to launching its scientific mission to transform our understanding of the universe. Filling a Planetary Knowledge Gap   Illustration comparing the sizes of sub-Neptune exoplanets TOI-421 b and GJ 1214 b to Earth and Neptune. Both TOI-421 b and GJ...

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Backyard astronomy with a small scope

Monday, January 31st 2022 02:03 PM

  This deep exposure brings out many beautiful targets within the familiar constellation Orion the Hunter. The red circle among the passing clouds is Barnard’s Loop. The Horsehead Nebula is visible near Orion’s famous belt stars. And to the lower left is the Rosette Nebula. Light pollution from the city Chengdu, China, is visible off in the distance. About 10 years ago, I was severely bitten by the aperture bug. I was using large telescopes in rural locations to chase down galaxies, as well as obtain detailed views of brighter objects. And while these scopes did produce memorable results, a big telescope has a serious drawback, other than being a beast to transport: You only see a small portion of the sky at a time. So, to get a better view of the California Nebula, a notoriously faint and expansive object, I started to employ smaller and smaller telescopes, including 10-inch, 8-inch, and 6-inch, achieving various degrees of success. Almost as a lark, I eventually d...

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